The Magnificent Magnolias
Part I: Family Tree

The Magnolia family is thought by many botanists to be the most primitive of the flowering plant families. It is also considered a very ancient group, with fossil records of many now extinct species dating to the Cretaceous Period, about 60 million years ago. Some of its equally ancient neighbors found in fossil records from the same period include sweetgum, sycamore, birch, and oak. Magnolia species of that period have been found in fossil records as far north as Alaska and Greenland. The family and genus were named for Pierre Magnol, renowned 17th century French botanist. Today this family includes some of the most interesting trees of the modern era. Members of the Magnolia family are deciduous or evergreen trees and shrubs with simple, alternate leaves and large flowers borne singly at or near the tips of the branches. The fruits are large, many seeded, leathery cone-shaped aggregates. Seeds are large and fleshy, usually red to pink in color and are suspended from the open fruits by thin elastic threads which may aid in dispersal by attracting birds and small mammals. Several magnificent magnolia family members are planted on our campus. Do you know who they are?

There are 12 genera worldwide and 180190 species in the magnificent magnolia family. They are found in Southeast Asia, the eastern United States to Central America, and from the West Indies to Brazil. Two genera are native to the United States, Magnolia, and Liriodendron. The genus Magnolia has very large, showy, insect-pollinated flowers that can reach up to one foot in diameter. It includes 7075 species, six of which are native to the United States. Only one of our four campus magnolia species is native, Magnolia acuminata or cucumber tree, which is located on the lawn of the campus warehouse. All of our magnificent magnolias were planted on campus as ornamentals. Our other three Magnolia species on campus are hybrids or natives of Southeast Asia. Many ornamental forms have been developed and Magnolia species are widely planted throughout the world as landscape specimens. The Chinese were first to cultivate magnolia, but not for it's horticultural characteristics. They were grown for a more practical purpose: the buds were used as flavoring for rice and medicines. Magnolia is considered an emblem of purity among Asian cultures.

The genus Liriodendron has only two species worldwide, one in China and one in the eastern United States. Fossil records indicate that this genus was also previously widely distributed throughout North America and the Old World in several forms. Liriodendron flowers are smaller and less showy than those of Magnolia but are also insect pollinated. We will take a look at these magnificent magnolias in more detail in the next installment!

by Cathy Heidenreich

Next (Magnolias: Part II)

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Last modified January 21,1998